Most meat, dairy, and eggs sold in the US come from factory farms, where animals are tightly packed together in dark, unsanitary warehouses. But you wouldn’t know it while browsing the meat, dairy, and egg aisles at the grocery store. A carton of “all natural” eggs might bear an illustration of a rustic farm; packages of chicken meat are touted as “humanely raised.”
In a few cases, these sunny depictions are accurate. But far too often they mask the industrial conditions under which these animals were raised and slaughtered.
Animal welfare and consumer protection advocates have a name for such misleading labeling: “humanewashing.” And research suggests it’s having precisely the effect that meat producers intend it to. A recent national survey by C.O.nxt, a food marketing firm, found that animal welfare and “natural” claims on meat, dairy, and egg packaging increased the intent to purchase for over half of consumers.
The problem is that most of the feel-good terms that food companies place on their products and appear in their advertising, such as “humane” or “ethically raised,” aren’t legally defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The USDA does require documentation to support the claims, but according to experts, those claims aren’t closely scrutinized.
And according to the data research company SPINS, meat and dairy products sold with animal welfare claims are on the rise, while the USDA reported that in 2019 alone, the agency received over 10,000 applications for animal-raising claims.
Over the past two decades, undercover investigations into factory farms have racked up hundreds of millions of views on social media, giving more people for the first time a glimpse into the barbarity of America’s meat industry. Growing awareness of these conditions has led to higher expectations among a certain subset of consumers that animals raised for food should be treated better.
But rather than engaging in the costly endeavor of actually changing their farming practices, far too many major meat producers are attempting to assuage consumer concerns by merely changing their packaging and advertising with claims of sustainable farms and humane treatment. These efforts mislead consumers, and undermine the small sliver of farmers who have put in the hard work to actually improve animal treatment.
The problem of humanewashing underscores an important point for animal welfare efforts: Consumer concern can only go so far. Consumers need accurate information to make more informed choices, but even then, they shouldn’t alone bear the burden of reducing animal suffering through what they buy, especially when that entails navigating a messy haze of dubious claims. Real policy change, with consumers and animals in mind, is needed to rein in America’s humanewashing problem.
The labels you read on meat packages, briefly explained
Humane claims presented on meat products first emerged in the mid-’90s, says Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), an American nonprofit advocacy group. The labels started appearing in the UK before making their way to US shelves by the early 2000s. “Through the success of those [labeling] programs, consumers started to view humane and humanely raised as a valuable claim,” she says.
“Then, the industry figured that out. And that’s how we got here.”
“Here” is a meat, egg, and dairy market in which food companies can easily make animal welfare and sustainability claims that sound wholesome and genuine without changing their practices meaningfully — or at all.
For example, labeling claims such as “ethically/responsibly/thoughtfully raised” have no legal definition and can be used on products that come from factory farms where welfare requirements are no higher than standard practices. In essence, any producer can make these claims.
Labeling claims made about the environment in which animals are kept can also be deceiving. For example, stating that meat from chickens or turkeys is “cage-free” may give the impression of higher animal welfare and entice a more conscious consumer to choose that product over another. But the claim is practically meaningless because chickens and turkeys raised for meat in the US aren’t caged.
On the other hand, most hens raised for eggs are caged, and when “cage-free” is found on egg cartons, it means something. However, typical cage-free egg farms often still subject chickens to awful conditions. While the birds are indeed never caged — which is a significant welfare improvement — they’re likely not given access to outdoors, as marketing may imply.
Some claims, such as “vegetarian-fed” or “omega-3-enriched eggs” can also give the impression that the animal care on these farms is somehow superior to what goes on at standard factory farms, even though the claims have nothing to do with animal welfare. Meanwhile, the “organic” label can have meaningful animal welfare implications — though it’s complicated.
Even when certain terms are defined by the USDA, they can and are often used to exaggerate the level of animal care, such as “free-range.” “Consumers should understand that free-range likely isn’t what they picture it to be: chickens spending all their time on pastures,” Rachel Krantz wrote for Vox, “because space requirements are undefined, and because free-range birds do spend most of their time indoors.”
Humanewashing and regulation
At its core, humanewashing is a regulatory problem. The USDA and FDA oversee different parts of the food industry, and each agency has different processes for approving product labels that enable meat, dairy, and egg producers to exaggerate animal welfare claims.
Let’s start with the USDA, which regulates beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and other meats, as well as “liquid eggs” — meaning eggs used as an ingredient in liquid or powder form by food manufacturers and restaurants. (“Shell” eggs, the kind you buy in a carton at the grocery store, are regulated by the FDA; more on this later.)
If you run a company that sells any of these products and you want to slap “humanely raised” on them, the expectation is that no one from the USDA actually comes out to inspect your farms (and they wouldn’t even have a definition of “humanely raised” to judge it by). Instead, meat producers must merely fill out a written application offering substantiation as to how their animals are “humanely raised,” supply a sketch of the label ... and that’s about it. Essentially, the USDA is taking the meat company at its word.
When AWI reviewed approximately 45 of those label applications, “half of the files the USDA gave us we consider inadequate substantiation of claim,” says Jones.
A spokesperson for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) told Vox, “The Animal Welfare Institute has brought their concerns to our attention and we are reviewing the materials they submitted to determine whether any changes need to be made to our approach to animal raising claims.” However, FSIS jurisdiction only applies from the time of slaughter, not when an animal is alive on a farm.
This USDA preapproval process has the effect of shielding meat producers from labeling lawsuits, so there’s almost no way to legally challenge the labeling of products under USDA regulation, according to Jay Shooster, an associate and senior animal welfare legal fellow at Richman Law & Policy, a social justice law firm based in New York. Shooster says that’s because courts have held that USDA-approved labels are immune from private lawsuits and federal authority — through the Poultry Products Inspection Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act — preempts state laws that cover false advertising.
Instead, advocacy groups file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a government agency that exists to protect consumers from fraud or deception in the marketplace.
Earlier this year, AWI filed a complaint against the meat producer Boar’s Head, requesting that the FTC investigate the company for allegedly using false and misleading claims stating its turkey and chicken sausage products are made from animals that are “humanely raised.” AWI argues that Boar’s Head uses the same cruel, industry-standard practices as other meat producers, so it shouldn’t be allowed to promote its products as humane.
On its packaging and website, Boar’s Head states: “Boar’s Head Brand defines humanely raised as animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”
That definition might sound nice to the average consumer, but it doesn’t tell us much about how the company actually treats its animals.
For example, all factory-farmed chickens and turkeys are provided “shelter,” which usually looks like being confined in a dark, barren barn. “Sufficient space” is subjective, and Boar’s Head doesn’t define how much space is sufficient. Boar’s Head doesn’t explain what a “resting area” is, or what “natural behaviors” their animals can engage in. And the company doesn’t address breeding — the most critical welfare problem for chickens raised for meat. (Nearly all chickens in the US have been bred to grow so large, so fast, that they have trouble walking.) Boar’s Head didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Some humane labeling claims are backed up by third-party auditing, which sounds like it should help, but the credibility of these audits can vary, and can be difficult for consumers to parse. In some cases this means independent animal welfare organizations are checking on and confirming welfare label claims, while in other cases the audits are being done by for-profit companies with varying standards.
The egg industry’s main trade association, the United Egg Producers (UEP), says it hires independent auditors to inspect farms that get its “United Egg Producers Certified” label, but that doesn’t mean much since the UEP’s animal welfare guidelines allow for continuous cage confinement, one of the cruelest practices in intensive farming. (UEP’s separate “cage free certified” label does not allow for cages.)
While the USDA covers meat, poultry, and liquid egg products, the FDA oversees dairy, fish, and shell eggs. The FDA doesn’t have a label preapproval process like the USDA. So, explains Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, food producers regulated by the FDA can essentially write whatever they want on their labels regarding farming practices and animal treatment (which also opens them up to litigation from advocates — more on this later). When reached for comment, an FDA representative referred me to the USDA/FSIS, which both referred me back to the FDA.
Advocacy groups have been pushing for a change in the standards and enforcements for meat and dairy labeling. AWI is asking the USDA to change how it regulates food labels, though notably not by asking it to legally define “humane.” “We don’t want [the USDA] to define humane, because we know they would define it as industry standard,” Jones says. Instead, AWI is requesting the USDA mandate third-party certification for humane and sustainability claims so that they are indeed above industry standards. That would look like the higher-welfare standards detailed in the certification AWI created, Certified Animal Welfare Approved, for the advocacy group A Greener World.
A more direct route involves challenging humanewashing in court. Richman Law & Policy has filed complaints on behalf of nonprofit advocacy groups in response to advertising claims made by mega producers like Tyson, Cargill, and Sargento.
How Tyson responded to its lawsuit challenging the company on its humane and sustainable claims for its chicken products is particularly telling. Tyson admitted in court that the terms it used were “merely opinions, predictions, and aspirations at best.” This year, a DC Superior Court rejected Tyson’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling the nonprofits adequately alleged “injury to those consumers who have been or will be deceived by defendant’s alleged marketing and advertising.”
“Most consumers don’t want to support this industry that is abusing animals, workers, rural communities, and our environment,” says Shooster. “But rampant false advertising is leading consumers to buy the exact products they’re trying to avoid and taking customers away from businesses that are offering genuine alternatives.”
In 2018 and 2019, Richman Law & Policy filed two separate lawsuits against Ben & Jerry’s over its claims that it sources milk and cream from “happy cows,” alleging that only a small amount of the company’s ingredients come from higher-welfare farms. Ben & Jerry’s argued that it never claimed to exclusively source ingredients from “happy cows,” though in 2020, the company announced it had removed the claim due to a label redesign. Later, Richman withdrew from one case, and another was dismissed.
“While we haven’t done an official survey of our cows’ happiness, we’re proud of the work we’ve done with Vermont’s family farmers over the past 35 years,” a Ben & Jerry’s spokesperson told Today in 2020.
Shooster says that going after individual companies “creates legal precedent that impacts the whole food industry and deters other companies from making similarly deceptive claims.”
Yet another avenue for change involves taking labeling challenges to the BBB National Programs National Advertising Division (NAD), which is tasked with enforcing “high standards of truth and accuracy” in advertising and media.
In 2019, AWI filed a complaint with NAD against Hatfield Quality Meats, a subsidiary of Clemens Food Group, the 11th-largest US pork producer. The complaint pertained to Hatfield’s labeling claims that its pigs were “Ethically Raised by Family Farmers Committed to a Higher Standard of Care, Governed by Third Party Animal Welfare Audits.”
NAD ruled that Hatfield’s standards were “not sufficient to substantiate the claim,” and recommended they remove the claim from their labels. The decision marked the first time NAD recommended the removal of a label claim on a meat product. (Hatfield did not respond when reached for comment.)
A consumer’s guide to higher-welfare meat, milk, and eggs
For consumers seeking meat, dairy, or egg products from farms that exceed — to varying degrees — baseline factory farming conditions, advocates often point to three specific labels: Global Animal Partnership (GAP)-Certified, Certified Humane, and Certified Animal Welfare Approved.
As Rachel Krantz wrote for Vox in 2019 about the Global Animal Partnership-Certified label:
GAP is a nonprofit that uses a five-step program to rate the welfare of cattle, chickens, pigs, hens, bison, goats, sheep, and turkeys. For chickens raised for meat, steps 1 through 3 each require improvements related to space, air quality, lighting, outdoor access, and other issues. But not until step 4 are producers required to use “higher-welfare breeds,” meaning birds that do not grow so fast they can barely walk. You might be familiar with GAP if you shop at Whole Foods, which uses the rating program for its meat, dairy, and eggs.
Though their standards are higher than the typical factory farm, activist investigations of a couple of GAP-approved farms have alleged abusive conditions. In response to one investigation, which documented dirty, injured turkeys, a Whole Foods spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal: “Our team found that the conditions were not as they were portrayed in the video.” In response to another investigation, where investigators found turkeys being thrown and kicked, GAP suspended the farm in question and stated it was investigating the matter.
Meanwhile, “[t]he Certified Animal Welfare Approved certification is overseen by the nonprofit A Greener World (AGW),” Krantz wrote. “For a producer to receive certification, continuous outdoor pasture access is required for all animals, and crates and cages are prohibited for all species. Additionally, transportation time for all chickens and turkeys cannot exceed four hours, since they are not given food or water during transport.”
Krantz also adds that Certified Humane, not to be confused with American Humane Certified, “has set welfare standards for each species. These include no cages for hens and sows, and, for chickens and turkeys, shorter transport times and better lighting relative to industry standards. Cattle are required to have outdoor access, but chickens, turkeys, and pigs are not.”
These programs certainly require better conditions for animals than the typical factory farm, which is undoubtedly good — though it’s important to bear in mind that even “humane” treatment is a low bar considering nearly all farmed animals are treated in ways that would be criminal if done to a dog or cat. And buyer beware — some major meat producers and industry groups have created their own labels and certification programs, with requirements that simply codify standard factory farming animal treatment.
For example, the One Health Certified program was created by one of the largest poultry producers in the US, Mountaire Farms. But the ASPCA and Consumer Reports have both deemed animal welfare claims made by the One Health Certified program to be misleading. The grocery chain Giant Eagle recently decided to discontinue One Health Certified chicken from its stores after allegations of humanewashing. (Mountaire did not respond to a request for comment.)
Other certification programs that seem to do little more than codify standard animal treatment, rather than meaningfully improve it, include American Humane Certified by the nonprofit American Humane, and the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program, which is run by the industry group National Milk Producers Federation. When reached for comment as to whether the FARM program simply follows standard industry practices, a spokesperson stated that it “reflects the latest science in its dairy animal care standards.” (American Humane did not respond to a request for comment.)
Despite clear differences among certifications, consumers have little understanding of them. A new survey from animal advocacy group Farm Forward found that among respondents who say they purchase humanely labeled meat every month, around 40 percent incorrectly believed that all products sold under GAP, American Humane Certified, and One Health Certified came from pasture-raised animals.
“These results demonstrate that consumers are largely holding all of these certifications, regardless of whether they are independent or industry-created, to the same standards, and are unable to distinguish among them,” the report reads. “This confusion creates the perfect environment for humanewashing.”
This is unsurprising, given that most consumers aren’t going to look into the specifications of each label. But the survey also found that consumer confusion is high even when it comes to more straightforward labels: Almost 40 percent of respondents thought that eggs from “cage-free” hens guaranteed that the hens were raised continuously on pasture.
What’s a conscious consumer to do?
There are a few important takeaways: Get acquainted with the labeling and certification landscape, eat less but “better” meat, and try out more plant-based meat alternatives.
At Vermont Law School, Beyranevand says nearly every year a student in her food regulation and policy class expresses disbelief that it requires taking a legal class in order to understand how food labels are regulated — or not regulated — in the US.
“If we have students in law school who feel like it’s absurd that they are taking this class to learn about food labels, then maybe we should make the laws more accessible,” she says.
To help the general public better understand food labels, Beyranevand and her students developed an interactive site that dissects what certain food labels actually mean. AWI, Farm Forward, the ASPCA, and Vox have also created labeling guides.
Another issue with purchasing higher-welfare meat, dairy, and eggs is that they cost much more than factory-farmed products, making them inaccessible for many Americans. One way to deal with this price differential is to opt for higher-welfare products but fewer of them.
The higher cost also limits how wide a consumer base higher-welfare meat, dairy, and egg products can reach. The same is true of plant-based meat, dairy, and egg alternatives, which also typically cost more than factory-farmed products. But those are continuing to come down in price, and taste better than the meat analogues of the past.
Setting aside alternatives, the confusion created by humanewashing poses a challenge to the work of changing consumer habits. Jones believes it’s neither fair nor realistic to put all of the responsibility on consumers to make sense of ever-changing information. “I don’t think we can expect consumers, or at least a large number of them, to ever be able to figure this out on their own,” she says.
Ultimately, what’s needed to curtail humanewashing is policy change — getting the USDA to require third-party certification for humane and sustainable claims, and to ensure they’re higher than industry standards, or calling on Congress to actually define humane and other terms.
Either path will be an uphill battle, but perhaps there’s an opening for the animal welfare cause by leaning into an alliance with one of the most powerful constituencies in the US: the consumer.
Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer and animal advocate. She is also a co-host of Paw & Order, a podcast about animal law in Canada.
Correction, December 22, 1:45 pm: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the National Advertising Division is part of the Better Business Bureau. It is part of a nonprofit unaffiliated with the Better Business Bureau called BBB National Programs.